The preliminary phone conversation with a visitor is often a curious amalgam of courtesy and disdain. For reasons he often assumes are obvious, he tells me as politely as possible that he is visiting middle-America and the prairie for the first time. When pressed for his expectations, our visitor might begin timidly with a question. “Do you guys have…a mall?” The revelation that we do, in fact, have several malls (and paved roads, and classy restaurants) floods the visitor with relief and spurs additional honesty. He generally expects cows, grass, and dirt. He plans to experience stifling boredom, and he expects very little, other than dilapidated gas stations on stretches of vacant highway. He expects wheat fields, churches, water towers, and scrub brush.
When he travels here, he is not disappointed, as those hallmarks are present in abundance. We meet and exceed any and all of his expectations with a wealth of fifties diners, rusted out grain silos, and train after train after train. Almost always, however, there will come a magical, tender moment of surprise as we pass through a stand of trees and charge into wide open space, surrounded by waving grass and sky. Our visitor quickly rolls down the window, and gazes at our home with new, widened eyes. He is taken aback. “I had no idea it would be like this,” he says. “It looks like the Serengeti. I thought the places like this were gone.”